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Condensing geographic region of WPS could help league flourish

With the Buffalo Flash confirming its intent Monday to potentially make a bid for a Women’s Professional Soccer team in 2011, there is no better time than now to explore an idea that I have discussed with various people that may just be an ideal business plan for WPS should changes need to be made to the current business model.

Although sponsorship is up, attendance clearly is not.  The current average attendance is below 4,000 fans per game, a drop of about 15 percent (as it stands a little over halfway through the season) from the 2009 average of 4,493 fans per game.  Since June 12, there have only been two crowds larger than 4,000 people outside Harvard Stadium: June 30 at the All-Star Game in Kennesaw, Ga. (4,610) and July 10 at Toyota Park when Chicago drew 4,064.  The current average obviously falls well short of the five-percent to 10-percent increase that WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci set as a goal for 2010 and teams are feeling the pressures of getting fans in the seats.That along with the Buffalo news prompts me to propose this idea – an idea that some may find absurd and others will see where I am coming from and recognize the merit of it.  With various WPS teams struggling to draw in 2010 and travel being one of the main expenses beyond salaries and gameday operations, it might be wise of the league to take a serious look at regionalizing its efforts.
Three of the seven WPS teams would be considered to be geographically located in the Northeast while five of the seven are located on the East Coast.  FC Gold Pride sits alone on the West Coast and will continue to do so in 2011 and, it seems, 2012.  The news of Dallas being in the running for a 2012 expansion team is great to hear from the perspective of owners being interested, but Dallas is nowhere close to Northern California.  If only Dallas entered WPS in 2012, FC Gold Pride would still be alone on the West Coast and Dallas would then be alone in the middle of the country.  In fact, Dallas is over twice as far from San Francisco as it is Atlanta.  Dallas is similarly a little over half the distance from Chicago as it is San Francisco.

So, essentially, that is a couple more long plane rides each year for every other WPS team and still does not provide FC Gold Pride with a short away trip.  Nor does it provide Chicago or, hypothetically, Dallas with much of a short trip.

Regionalizing the league, however, could slash the monsters that are travel expenses.  In talking to several knowledgeable soccer personalities, the term ‘bus league’ was used at one point and while it is less than glorious, it seems to be a realistic option for controling expenses and building the league.

Pretend for a moment that WPS markets were focused solely in a core pod in the Northeast (a general term) with some minor extensions like Chicago and Atlanta.  With the exception of the Pride, that is exactly what WPS is right now.  Regionalizing the league would change very little in terms of teams.  Yes it would mean FC Gold Pride – the one West Coast team – would have to find a way to bring its operations east and believe me, I am the last person who wants to see another market abandoned.

But moving a team is much less of a black eye than folding a team.  In an ‘East Coast league,’ Atlanta (and even Chicago) would then become the teams farthest away from the generally speaking close cities of Boston, Piscataway, N.J., Philadelphia and Washington.  An ideal place to fill that gap between Atlanta and Washington might be Cary, N.C., where the Carolina Courage once played in the soccer-specific WakeMed Soccer Park (then SAS Soccer Park).  There, the Courage averaged 5,603 fans in their three years of existence (32 games) from 2001-2003.

Do I think Buffalo, N.Y. can handle a WPS team?  No, not in this version of the league, anyway.  But in an East Coast-oriented league where most road games are on a bus?  Maybe, even though it is still a stretch.

Regardless, the scope of the idea is much larger than just Buffalo.  Would such a league allow for the ever-sought out and never found national footprint that even MLS still does not have?  No, but it is tough for WPS to claim a national footprint right now anyway.  I don’t see fans turning their backs on the league because all of a sudden the lone West Coast team has moved east for financial purposes.  With a strong core of youth soccer fans, most young people would not even notice if the local rival came to town a few more times a year instead of some other team, and developing local rivalries is necessary anyway.  Teams need to be relavent locally to succeed, not nationally.  As long as the best players in the world are still playing in WPS, the league can still take claim to being the world’s best and people will still turn up for matches.

The United States is not England or another geographically small country that can easily make a truly national league work.  It is a tough beast to conquer 3,537,441 square miles, so starting small and expanding outward does not sound like a terrible idea.  If the league finds financial success that way and builds a strong foundation, then it would be wise to branch out and start moving south and west of Chicago.  In truth, keeping operations in a tight geographic area is a smart idea.

Without seeing all of the books, I cannot claim that this is what has to be done right now or maybe even ever.  I can say that it is a good enough idea for WPS to give some thought to and it is a model that worked at the PDL, W-League, WPSL and NPSL levels.  There is no extensive travel unless teams make the final four.  It is just a way to control costs and perhaps it could be a way to help a young women’s soccer league flourish.


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Comments… read them below
SB said…
To be considered a national league, WPS must have team presence across 3 time zones. Three trips to SF, including airfare and hotel, are no more than $25K combined, a small change in a $2M budget. Will not make or break a franchise. We already have 2 regional leagues. Utilizing this idea, Gold Pride should join WPSL and rest of the WPS join W-League.
Nick Aliffi said…
Completely agree with Giovanni. A legit east coast / west coast deal would be a quality deal. The only problem with that is that the east coast is deprived of Marta, easily the league’s best draw. Love the blog!
random said…
Anonymous – why is expanding to Dallas crazy if in the next breath you mention Houston and Phoenix? If you fall in the same frame of thought as Dallas would be isolated from the other teams as FCGP is, it seems that adding Houston or Phoenix on their own would mean the same. However, if you don’t think Dallas is viable and Houston/Phoenix are I would love to hear the thought process behind that.
Jeff said…
It could run the risk of being out of sight out of mind, but no matter what, there needs to be a way to play more regionally – even in conferences. The league needs to be out west as well, but it needs to do so with multiple teams. If at least four teams can be established in the west, there is then an opportunity to play a schedule where teams in the east play each other and teams in the west play each other most of the season, and maybe they make a road trip or two where they play a midweek game and a weekend game in one shot (which FC Gold Pride is indeed doing right now). Let’s also not pretend travel costs are the biggest expenses. There is much more than that, but they are not insignificant. And Brandi, unfortunately there is no Facebook login for comments. The site is all custom code. Comments can be set for anonymous commenting or registered login (where you can register once), although people seem to be preferring anonymous commenting.
brandi said…
Hi Jeff, I came to the post via a link someone sent me… Really interesting idea. I think it might work—if the league could build a West Coast league in parallel, and I don’t think the league can sustain that type of effort. As a fan, it’s a bit disheartening to think of not having a West Coast-based team (I’m a former Sol season ticket holder). I’m a die-hard, so I would find a way to follow the action. But I worry about the casual fans. Out of sight, out of mind. The league would have to have a better way for out-of-region supporters to follow the action. The current webcasts just aren’t cutting it. btw, is there a way to comment via facebook or with single-sign-on?
Jeff said…
David, that is actually a very good point about traveling less this year with no LA. I think it balances out a bit more though with 2010 being a longer season (four more games). I do want to clarify that in no way is the idea a dig at FC Gold Pride. There are certainly bigger problems to be sorted out in the east and the NeSmith family should be given a lot of credit for what they have done. The idea is really food for thought because if travel is going to increase, revenue will need to do so also. As stated, adding Dallas does not do much for limiting travel. Two conferences is the best option, but there need to be a couple more West Coast teams to even consider that. Augustinho – Do you think the U.S. could obtain a third World Cup in 24 years? Seems like a lot.
augustinho said…
Perhaps regionalizing, then taking advantage of regional or city rivalries and aiming at sponsorships accordingly. And making right now at Fifa an agreement to make the US the host country of next womens world Cup. How? Reason is same as Fifa´s decision to discontinue the continental swaps for the mens world tournament. Adding up the audience, tradition and sponsoring appeal. Under my view it´s much more in the other national federations interest to assure a WWC in the united states rather than in any of their countries. This is a task the Us entity can easily undertake and win.
David said…
I am sure the league is committed to minimizing travel expenses in general, and the Pride are currently on a swing that doesn’t bring them home between games. I would also argue that, technically, with one less West Coast team, the other squads are actually traveling less than last year. I think it’s also very important to acknowledge the Pride’s owners here. The NeSmith Family should be commended for their commitment to WPS: 1) They jumped in at the last minute to join the league’s first season, committing resources to players and facilities even though those later turned out to be hasty decisions. 2) They promptly switched fields and changed-up their entire roster to provide a better experience after that one hastily-thrown-together year. 3) spent money to develop that new stadium arrangement. 4) Took Marta in the Sol dispersal draft. 5) Signed Shannon Boxx after Athletica folded. 6) Sent the entire traveling roster to Atlanta for the ASG. 7) … I could go on…. Great owners who are just perfect for WPS (and I hope I’m not jinxing it ;-P ) I know the article is only an idea, but I would be surprised to see any changes in FCGP that would involve moving or anything else in the next couple of years. – David
Jeff said…
Ideally, West Coast expansion solves the travel problem, but you need at least a couple of teams to join FC Gold Pride out there and that won’t happen in 2011 and as things stand now, in 2012 either, it seems. There is much more time for 2012 teams to develop, but still, are a few markets going to go from preliminary talks to a team on the field in 18 months? Maybe one will. Bay Area can’t be left alone out there for too long. There are many other issues (stadia being one) with other teams, but the geography is a big example.
Giovanni said…
Interesting thoughts … I think that makes sense. Maybe something would be better if they built 16 teams — 8 on the east; 8 on the west — and have west teams only play west; east only play east, then play each other in the final. Just like the other leagues — except with way more talent.
Anonymous said…
Regionalization (if that’s a word) might be radical but it probably wouldn’t be such a bad idea. One has to wonder how a national fully-professionalized league can sustain itself with a.) such poor attendance figures and b.) such little interest from the mainstream press. Anything WPS can do to ensure its future is ok by me. But it would mean more expansion in the short-term so that teams could have competition to conend with (obviously). Expanding to Dallas seems crazy and I sincerely hope that WPS isn’t still considering that. Houston, San Diego, Phoenix, SLC could be markets worth mulling over.
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